Debating Theatrical History

I recently engaged in a little discussion about the origins of Chinese martial arts on Michael Saso’s Facebook page which got deleted.  

Anyway, I was delighted to get this private note from a gentleman in that discussion.

Dear Scott,

I am intrigued by your unique perspective on Chinese martial arts history, though, and would like to continue our conversation if you have the time and are interested in doing so.
I am a 20th generation practitioner of Chen Style Taijiquan, and specifically study the Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method, which is also know as Hong Transmission Chen Style Taijiquan. I have studied with Chen Zhonghua since 2002. I have traveled through China and have interviewed many people about the Chen Style transmission and learned from them. Some of these people were rough and tumble characters, some were the scholarly type, none of them, however, were involved in the theater arts to my knowledge.


If my thesis about theatrical origins is correct then that is a sad fact.  I would at least contend, however, that most Chen Taiji folk still have a bit of show in them.  When a small older guy tosses around a big youthful guy as if he was some misplaced beach ball, to the awe, laughs, and delight of a small group of observers; I’d say there is a bit of theater at hand.  

You said that it was implausible that martial traditions could have arisen as a response to banditry. 

Martial arts developed in a very violent world, but violence does not make China unique.  Since there are martial arts styles all over China, we ought to attempt to answer the question generally instead of locally.  Since complex martial arts forms (taolu) are all over China and yet only exist in other places, like Indonesia and Japan, where there is an acknowledged continuous Chinese presence going back centuries. 

However, from what I have heard and read of the Chen family history (I can not rightly speak of any other family styles or lineages), the Shanxi immigrant Chen Bu helped the people of Wenxian county in Henan province suppress a group of bandits during the early Ming dynasty. Due to the political and social instability of the time as the new ruler tried to assert his authority and attempted to rid the country of all threats to his power through sweeping examples of force, there were many opportunistic looters and bandits. It has been documented that several generations later, Chen Wangting fought many bandits and robbers in Shandong and Henan provinces. His military predecessor, Qi Jiguang, whose writings he studied, fought sea-borne invaders and pirates during the late Ming. During Chen Wangting’s time during the late Ming and early Qing, the political upheaval again gave rise to opportunistic criminal activity in the area as Manchu troops chased bands of Ming loyalists into Southwest China. The agricultural community of Chenjiagou certainly needed to protect itself and the harvests from the pillagers and perhaps even a slightly stubborn resistance may have been enough to dissuade such acts and caused the marauders to pursue a less formidable target.

Absolutely, what we call martial arts today, in every part of China, developed under the stress of violent conflict and the experience of men at arms.  I do like the notion that Taiji comes from fighting pirates, and I’ve written about it before.  The skill of balancing becomes paramount when fighting on water.  However, it should be noted that a great deal, perhaps the majority, of theater was performed on boats and barges in the south.  Many performers lived their whole lives on boats, and kept their life savings on those same boats.

I have researched Chinese theater during this period under consideration for a paper I wrote on the cultural context of the Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion), which you many know was Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece produced for Kun operatic theater. From what I have gathered the theater and operas, while performed by performers belonging to a low social estate, were mainly enjoyed by the elite gentry estate. Much of this flourished in cities around the Yangzi delta. There was also a scene up north around the capital. 


“Temples,” writes Susan Naquin, “Were overwhelmingly the most important component of public space in Chinese cities in the late-Imperial era.”  Martial artists often made a living by giving public performances on temple grounds.  Like other “rivers and lakes” artists--actors, singers, and storytellers--they traveled from one shrine to another, performing on such holidays as the local god’s birthday.  A seventeenth-century pilgrim discovered at the Shandong Temple of the Eastern Peak “some ten wrestling platforms and theatrical stages, each attracting hundreds of spectators who clustered like bees or ants.”  “In every city temple fair,” observed the late Qing Yun Youke, “there are martial artists demonstrating their arts.”

The following quote is from a scholar native to Shanxi recalling the situation before 1949.

“Every village, large and small, had nonprofessional performances of its own operas.  The farmers called this “family opera” (jia xi).  Virtually every village had this.  After liberation a single county (xian) could have had over 200 non-professional troupes....I remember that in my home town, Yishi, and its suburbs, there were over eighty stages, and it was only an ordinary small town.  Larger villages usually had five or more stages, and the smallest ones had at least two”  (David Johnson 2009: 146-147).

However, unless traveling troupes of actors carried the theater arts away from the core to peripheral areas, such as Wenxian county in Henan, perhaps as part of some occasional countryside market to which some works of classical literature refer, it is unlikely that any martial influence would have held sway coming from such transient types, given the guardedness generally shown toward the transmission of a traditional skill. 


I think I answered this above, but it is worth noting that both amateur and professional actors were an essential component of popular communal religion.  Nearly every small town would have had long standing relationships with regional professional theater groups as well as lineages of amateur groups.  As for the secrecy argument, there are hundreds of possible answers, but I would venture that if I taught you 90% of what I know and kept a certain 10% absolutely secret, you’d still be in the dark.  

I suppose those who performed well on examinations and became military officers could have been exposed to more culture, but then why would they hobnob with lowly actors and singsong people? 

That question bothered me too, and I’ve written about it HERE.  It turns out that there are many reasons, fun and sex probably being at the top, but it is not really in doubt that they mixed socially a great deal.

Maybe those of the family who served as armed escorts could have come into contact with actors accompanying wealthy families, but then if the actors were more skilled in martial arts than the bodyguards, then why bother with bodyguards?

 An interesting question.  My answer is a bit sideways.  I believe that there were two pre-20th Century ways to sneak out of the performing caste, one was as hired muscle, the other was prostitution.  Hired muscle could over time gain a lot of trust and responsibility, a prostitute could become a high status concubine.  

But also consider, acting troupes were often paid in silk and they carried around great chests full of this treasure when they went from town to town.  As low caste, these troupes were not allowed to sleep inside the city walls.  Kind’a makes you think they were armed and could fight doesn’t it?

If it is as you say, and Chen style is originally a choreographed “image mime” of the life of Zhang Sanfeng, 

I came up with the idea that the form was in fact the narrated story of Zhang Sanfeng because it fit with out any tweaking!  I must do a video on this. 

why is there no mention of this in the genealogical history of the family? What motive would they have had to omit this?  

I believe most of the genealogies were written in modern times to exclude this info, but anything written at an earlier date in Chen village would have considered it too obvious to state.  As for motive, all the martial arts were subject to humiliation after the Boxer Rebellion and a great effort was made to purify them of any religious or theatrical content.  This is the same upheval that ended footbinding, it was intense and pervasive over a generation or two.  Nearly every martial history written in that era, was an anti-theater anti-popular religion doctrine.  I think, in the future we will read them as threats and intimidation.  

Some forms of martial arts are probably more closely associated Triads (Tiandihui) and other secret revolutionaries.  These cults were also highly theatrical involving for instance, trance possession by Sun Wukong or Guan Yu, and in that sense are historically tied to a pre-Opera theatricality and exorcism processions.

You speak of culture, but can you deny the existence of the culture of the bandit, robber, and pirate, or for that matter the culture of the bodyguard, armed escort, or soldier? What effects did the existence and activity of these specific social fields have on society at large?

That question will be easier to answer once we start being honest about the pervasiveness of theater before the 20th Century.

I admit that there is a certain performance element to Taijiquan as we see it today, but each move of the forms my teacher has taught me has martial application and that is the only meaning that I have ever heard him attach to them. He maintains that this is the traditional transmission. The culture that surrounds our learning community is thus very practical in nature. While it may sound strange, we are trying to make ourselves into machines that are able to use “four ounces to move one thousand pounds” and that’s about it. You will not likely see anything like the “Shaolin Warriors” stage production coming out of our camp anytime soon! LOL
I generally attribute the development of the unique “silk reeling” method of martial application that is the hallmark of Chen Style to the indigenous Chinese theory of yin and yang and the scientific understanding of physics and mechanics that was circulating in China in the 1600’s. I do not think the Scottish at that time had the same cultural legacy and scientific understanding, and so did not come up with something so ingenious. China was actually outpacing Europe in terms of scientific and technological advancement up until the Enlightenment in Europe and then a number of factors reversed this trend.

The way I learned Chen Style is that every inch is at least 3 techniques, striking, joint breaking, and throwing.  I haven’t seen a technique in any other art that isn’t in Taiji, and push hands can be done on the ground.  This eventually leads to an apophatic realization that there are no techniques, only performance of them as two person routines. It is the relationship of jing, qi, and shen that produces Taiji Fighting Magic.    

I admit that I have a certain bias and I am invested in the narrative that I have presented. However, I am not uncritical and your perspective has made me think more deeply about the history of my lineage. Although challenging, I respect your viewpoint and would greatly appreciate if you could direct me to any writings or other evidence that supports your thesis. I will check out Meir Shahar’s “Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and Chinese Martial Arts” when I have the chance.
Thank you,
Name Withheld by Request

Sure, I wrote a paper a few year back that has a lot of references!  (This is a PDF feel free to cite, I haven't had time to figure out how to change it on the Daoist Studies Cite.

Best Regards,